Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool: Tactical Analysis | Rodgers’ implements the diamond, controls midfield & prevents United’s attack

Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool | The biggest rivalry in English football took place at Old Trafford; two of England’s most successful football clubs locked horns. But while the 80s showed both the sides at the height of their powers, the past decade or two has seen United leapfrog their rivals and take control of English football. This season however, and this game in particular, was a rather rare setting with Liverpool well ahead of the defending champions in the league table and two contrasting objectives for the remainder of the campaign.

It was one of those rare derbies where Manchester United weren’t the outright favourites to take all three points, but what transpired wasn’t expected by many – even with United’s poor campaign.

In a game where Manchester United didn’t threaten whatsoever, Liverpool took the lead after Rafael handled in the area (for which he was lucky to escape from a second yellow), Gerrard dispatched the resulting penalty. 24 seconds into the second half, Allen was fouled by Phil Jones in the box and Gerrard scored from the spot again. United struggled to get anything meaningful into the game as Liverpool were awarded another penalty following a Sturridge dive which saw Nemanja Vidic sent off for the 4th time against Liverpool. Captain Steven Gerrard missed the penalty, and his chance for a hat-trick.

More Reading | Liverpool 1-0 Manchester United: Tactical Analysis

Moments after David De Gea pulled off an incredible save from Suarez, the Uruguayan capitalised as Untied switched off and scored his 25th of the season. The final score of Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool might be a bit deceiving as the away side wasn’t overly impressive themselves, but they were easily miles ahead of the opposition.

Line Ups

Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool

Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool: Formation

Manchester United: De Gea, Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra, Fellaini (Cleverley 76′), Carrick, Januzaj (Welbeck 76′), Mata, Rooney, Van Persie

Liverpool: Mignolet, Johnson, Flanagan, Skrtel, Agger, Gerrard (Leiva 87′), Allen, Henderson, Sterling (Coutinho 72′), Suarez, Sturridge (Aspas 90′)

Goals: Gerrard 34′ (pen), 46′ (pen), Suarez 84′

Rodgers’ excellent use of his midfield men to counter United’s solitary attacking outlet

Brendan Rodgers has received a lot of praise for his tactical intelligence, especially in big games, where mostly in an attacking sense he has made smart decisions. One must credit him once again for his smart tactical moves which earned his side a famous Old Trafford victory.

Joe Allen hasn’t been first choice by any stretch of the imagination but Rodgers opted for the midfield in this crucial game ahead of attack minded Coutinho. The Welshman formed a pairing with Jordan Henderson in midfield, in what was expected to be a 4-3-3 variant. In stead, the Reds went in with a diamond formation, with Henderson & Allen given important roles both defensively and in an attacking sense.

The two were positioned in central midfield but were required to drift into wide positions when in a defensive phase. Brendan Rodgers clearly identified David Moyes’ preference to play along the wings in his 4-4-2 formation, with the crosses from either side their main attacking outlet. Once this was nullified, it made Liverpool’s case much easier to complete.

Joe Allen: Action Areas (via Squawka)

Joe Allen: Action Areas (via Squawka)

Jordan Henderson Action Areas

Jordan Henderson Action Areas (via Squawka)

Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson were thus regularly seen covering the wide areas in deeper positions, providing cover to their full-backs and reducing the burden on them while also filling in for them when they made forward bursts (especially Glen Johnson at right-back and not Jon Flanagan as much). Although this opened up space which Fellaini benefited from, seeing a lot of the ball, the United midfielders were there to defend rather than create. Thus the only real outlet was the wide areas, and countering that position while leaving holes in the centre had no effect on Liverpool defensively. Their runs forward, as depicted in the illustration above, are explained later.

United’s solitary attacking outlet

Moyes and United came under a lot of criticism following their 2-2 draw at home to Fulham, as the Red Devils had enumerable amount of crosses with no result. This piece has better analysed the one-dimensional play of Manchester United, which was pretty evident against Liverpool as well.

David Moyes continued with his 4-4-2 approach for the game, with the entire focus of United’s attacking options coming from these wide areas. The idea was simple, get the ball, distribute it out wide, run at Liverpool’s full-backs and cross. Do that once, twice and throughout the game. While Adnan Januzaj did have some good runs and take ons as Flanagan struggled occasionally to keep up, this attacking approach was rather redundant and clearly unsuccessful.

But what most infuriated United fans is that this didn’t change throughout the game. Even while chasing, even with 10-15 minutes left as the atmosphere rose from the home fans despite the scoreline, the idea remained the same – wide, cross, repeat. The fans watching Manchester United live, both at the stadium and in pubs/houses across the World knew that it just wasn’t working for them, with a change clearly evident, yet David Moyes persisted with the same.

With Henderson and Allen checking the runs of the United full-backs and providing cover to their own full-backs, Moyes’ men were unsuccessful in their only attacking approach. Things didn’t change, nothing was played through the centre despite Wayne Rooney’s ability to do so and Liverpool comfortably settled into the defensive phase within the first-half to a point where United didn’t look threatening at all. None of United’s attack sent fear through Liverpool fans; the full-backs and central midfielders were more than capable of dealing with the attacking approach. Although Jon Flanagan was looking shaky at the start, and seemed like he was riding his luck with some unnecessary challenges, he was quite superb at Old Trafford against United’s right side of attack. He made an incredible 9 tackles and 3 interceptions in a solid display, settling into his position as the game wore on. United can be threatening from the wings, but once you do that regularly, you allow the opposition to settle in to defend against it.

Towards the end of the first-half Manchester United found some positives in this attacking approach with Rafael’s bursts down the right, but into the second and Liverpool capably dealt with it. Man United produced only 1 shot on target the entire game, that coming from Rooney’s effort which was well saved by Mignolet.

Liverpool’s use of the diamond to narrow play & exploit the space between the lines

We will discuss Steven Gerrard’s exact role a little later, but to explain this point we must understand that the Liverpool captain was positioned as the deep point of the diamond.

Many expected Rodgers’ to go with that 4-3-3 variant we mentioned earlier, but as he did against Southampton, Rodgers preferred a diamond formation in midfield. With Coutinho on the bench, it was Raheem Sterling who played the attacking point of the diamond, to the surprise of many. Raheem Sterling made it into our list of 100 Best Young Talents in World football; he was at #6 in our list of attackers. Read the entire list here.

While the teenager, Sterling, didn’t offer much in as a central attacking midfielder, his positioning helped narrow the midfield area when Liverpool attacked, thus Suarez and Sturridge were able to drift a little wide to receive the ball with the entire United side narrowing their defensive play to reciprocate Liverpool’s tactics.

Liverpool's midfield attempt to narrow play

Liverpool’s midfield attempt to narrow play

What Liverpool did superbly again was pull the United midfield out from their deeper positions. Sterling was often seen dropping deep, that compiled with Suarez’ movement forced Carrick & Fellaini to advance and move out of position, this allowed Henderson and Allen to play in between the lines of defence and midfield. They exploited this area constantly, helping themselves with regular interceptions and tackles in the midfield area and making runs into the box to support the front two. The second penalty too was earned through a run made by Allen as Henderson played a ball through to him.

Steven Gerrard’s role as quarter-back, shielding the defence and keeping Rooney out of it

I was made aware by a friend of the fact that Gerrard’s role is being dubbed as a ‘quarter-back’ while watching the Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool game; it’s hard to keep up with these tactical names.

While Steven Gerrard will be remembered for the two penalties he scored and the hat-trick one that he missed, from a tactical viewpoint, Liverpool’s captain played an intriguing role in the heart of the midfield (or slightly deeper from it). He has developed well into that deep playing role over the last couple of games and it seems like this is his new adopted position, as opposed to the advanced roles he played earlier.

Gerrard positioned deep, helped by pressing of the midfielders ahead

Gerrard positioned deep, helped by pressing of the midfielders ahead

As the illustration above shows, Gerrard is sitting deep in Liverpool’s midfield, covering the area in between the lines (which United failed to do). Henderson, Allen and Sterling ahead of their captain provide another cover to prevent the opposition from leaking balls through.

Gerrard was solid at shielding his central defenders, going strongly into challenges, winning possession and quickly spreading play without being overly spectacular. A tidy role, but a vital one to keep the balance of the team together. His positioning helped prevent Rooney from offering much from his favoured central position as Gerrard was on him constantly. Juan Mata was naturally seen moving into central areas as well but Gerrard ensured United weren’t able to get much joy from the area.

It further helped Gerrard’s case when Man United seemed disinterested in creating anything meaningful from the central position, keeping with their policy of getting crosses in from wide areas.

It was the perfect sort of game to play Gerrard in a role which required constant tackles, strong challenges with his experience preventing him from lunging into defensive plays.

Moyes’ reluctance to change things

Now its quite evident in this piece that United offered nothing in attack, besides their attempts at wide play. From central positions there was nothing coming through, allowing Liverpool to dominate in this area. A tactical masterclass from Rodgers to play that narrow diamond formation.

But what managers do (or are required to), when their initial plan clearly doesn’t work is change things around a bit. Offer another attacking outlet, add something more into attack, make changes to atleast gain control of the central midfield position and allow the attack to benefit from it, something. But it took Moyes the 76th minute to make his first substitution. Even Rodgers, despite leading 2-0, made a substitution earlier realising that Sterling wasn’t offerring enough from his position, bringing Coutinho on.

The change that Moyes made too didn’t make any real difference. A like for like substitution was made with Tom Cleverley coming on for Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj taken off for Danny Welbeck. It was a bit strange because Fellaini was arguably United’s best player and did something in preventing Liverpool, making 9 successful tackles. Neither Cleverley nor Welbeck did anything to help United’s cause, although that’s probably down to the game changing with Vidic sent off, which happened a minute after the substitutions.

Either way, it’s hard to see why Moyes wouldn’t make changes earlier, when things were clearly not working out even in the first half. It’s hard to even see what the likes of Cleverley would offer in a situation where the side are trailing 2-0. With the likes of Kagawa on the bench, wouldn’t it make more sense to have brought him on in place of a defensive player, stick him in the centre and offer another attacking option, thus preventing the hold Liverpool had on the wide areas? Ofcourse it would.

Where does this leave them?

Manchester United are 20 points off first place and 14 away from their rivals Liverpool. They risk claiming the tag of worst defending champions, one held by Blackburn as they finished outside the top seven, the place currently occupied by United. Their biggest game of the season is against Olympiakos next, get knocked out of that and one has to question Moyes’ future.

For Liverpool, it was case of establishing themselves as a top four side and qualifying for the Champions League. This victory, and Spurs’ derby defeat helps their case with a gap developing between 4th spot and 5th. Pundits have spoken about Liverpool’s title challenge, which may be a bit far-fetched, but 4pts behind 1st place with a game in hand and 9 to go, you’d have to consider them as contenders.

For more Tactical Analysis of the biggest games across Europe, head this way.

Co-founder and Chief Editor here. Obsessed with tactics. Keen follower of young players. Creator of #TalentRadar. Appeared in A Football Report's list of "Best in Football Writing 2012".